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Utopian Problems

Just how long can you go getting everything you want?

Pretty, but utopia is overrated.

The simpleton answer is ‘forever’, but you need to think a bit harder than that. Consider how human beings use their time at the moment. In the so-called Third World, much time is spent surviving – getting food, getting water, maintaining shelter, etc., etc.. Proportionally less time can be spent enjoying oneself thanks to the insecurity of their situation. Move up to the so-called First World, and ‘survival’, as such, is generally easier. We spend a lot of our time working to make money, yes, but we have more opportunity to entertain ourselves and much greater ability to acquire whatever it is we want, though that is limited by income. Still, when compared to the huge number of people in the world who make less than a dollar a day, your ~$700 a week job is pretty sweet.

Still, we in the First World aren’t satisfied – we want more money, more property, better vehicles, better skin, bigger muscles, smaller waists. We want the train to show up at the exact moment we step onto the platform, we want our iPhones to function while miles above or beneath the surface of the Earth, we want our fridge to re-fill itself with ice cream all by itself, and for that ice cream to be somehow healthy for us. These are, in common parlance, “First World Problems”.

Okay, so say we solve all those problems. Eternal youth and health. Unlimited fun and games. No work at all. No danger.
Cancer cured, traffic eliminated, energy for free, and all the healthy ice cream you can eat forever and ever and ever and ever. Then what?

In Utopia, we probably start complaining about even smaller things. We want to re-arrange the freckles on our face into a pattern more aesthetically pleasing. We want our dogs to talk to us in Scottish accents that are more realistic than the ones we genetically engineered them to talk in now. We think it’s really inconvenient having to hold our breath underwater, so we push for federal legislation mandating all children be able to breathe water.

So, eventually, say we get all that. Then what?

If you take away all the challenge, all the struggle, all the potential for failure…what do you have left? Iain M Banks explores this (somewhat) in his Culture series, and Arthur C Clarke goes through Utopian ennui in Childhood’s End. Others have covered it, as well. Even Idiocracy, to some extent, wonders what a society of near-perfect comfort would do to us. To my mind, it isn’t positive. It would have negative social effects we have difficulty imagining.

I write this, now, just as Johns Hopkins is discovering a way to regenerate adult blood cells into embryonic stem cells. It’s still unclear what this might mean for humanity, of course, but it has great potential to make the comfortable even more comfortable. I think about that a lot – and talk about it often on this blog. How much comfort do we really need, anyway? When did living into your seventies/eighties and dying equal ‘dying too young?’

What I hope for these technologies is that they aren’t simply used to make the wealthy and the powerful (in which I include most residents of the First World) immortal – they really, really don’t need to be. What I’d rather see is these technologies deployed so that all of us – all humanity – can live in the state of relative comfort that we First Worlders do now. I think this because, ultimately, First World Problems are good problems to have – not too terrible, but not so easy that we forget what it means to be alive, to struggle, and to achieve.

Superman and Batman

I’m not going to touch what happened in Colorado. It’s monstrous, and I have things I want to shout the same as everybody else. Shouting, though, is seldom wise and never calm, and wisdom and serenity are most important in the face of terrible acts.

So, to shift gears a bit and steer us away from the immediate and into the realm of the metaphorical (as is the wont and duty of every spec-fic writer), let us consider Superman and Batman. Of the two, Batman is much, much more popular. He has the best stories, the best writers, the best of everything. To call him ‘better,’ though, is to betray a cultural bias, not state a fact. Batman and Superman are poles on a spectrum of behavior. Their goals are identical, their heroic roles in society are similar, but their philosophical underpinnings are fundamentally at odds.


Criminals are, by nature, a superstitious, cowardly lot. To instill fear into their hearts, I became a bat. A monster in the night. And in doing so, have I become the very thing that all monsters become – alone.

–From Hush

All societies posit values through the heroes they idolize, and Batman is no different. If he is popular, it is because he scratches something we want scratched. So, what is that thing?

Batman is an avenger. He fights crime with terror. He responds to criminal threats with threats. He is the visceral, essential wish-fulfillment of a society which has lost hope in the goodness of its own societal framework. When you look at the news and recoil in horror at the terrible thing some jackass has done to someone else and you feel that deep, cold knot deep in your guts – that’s Batman. Batman would go and kick that guys ass. He’d break every bone is his goddamned body until he was weeping with terror and begging for mercy. And then, because Batman (because we) is the hero, he gives it to them. He gives it to them, though, with a promise: I’m letting you go, but if you ever…

Batman doesn’t mess around. He doesn’t pull punches. He doesn’t hold hands. He’s a regular guy who’s made himself superhuman by dint of his own personal obsessions, which is itself a perverse reflection of the American Dream. He devotes his massive wealth to populist causes, but we know and he knows and everybody knows that the real work to improve society happens on the street. That’s what we go to see – Batman making the people who terrify us quake in terror. His mania is our release; his story is stress relief for the modern urbanite who fears for their safety.

He’s also identifiable. He’s flawed, lonely, and mortal. We see ourselves in him more readily and wish to be him with more ease. His life seems at once idyllic and adventurous – wealthy, carefree playboy by day; courageous, brilliant hero by night. Every kid’s dream, right? Even once we grow up and see the cracks in Wayne’s psyche, we still find Batman’s life appealing. That says something about us. Something very important.


They can be a great people, Kal-El–they wish to be. They simply lack the light to show the way.For this reason above all – their capacity for good – I have sent them you… my only son.

~Superman, the Movie

Superman is different; Superman is not us. Superman is held to a higher standard than Batman. If Batman fails somehow, if corruption continues to spread despite his efforts, if he beats the Joker unconscious and the Joker lives to kill again, we accept this as part of Batman’s humanity. He doesn’t need to be perfect. Superman does and, to some extent, Superman is.

Superman’s the nice guy with the great physique and the gleaming smile who does the right thing, all the time. He works hard for little pay as a reporter, trying to tell people the truth. When he stops crime, there isn’t much fuss – they can’t stop him, they can’t harm him. He walks into the bank, bends the crooks’ guns in half, and marches them off to jail. He does this in plain sight; he is not frightening. He doesn’t use tools like terror or cruelty, even against those who deserve it. He smiles a lot. He’s chivalrous to women. He tells the truth.

Superman is not as popular as Batman, and it should come as little surprise that it is because of what Superman represents, ultimately, to the viewer. In Superman stories, it isn’t Superman who fails or makes mistakes. He is not culpable, morally or otherwise, in the terrors that afflict Metropolis. This is distinct from Batman who, as a wealthy person and a regular human being, is de facto embroiled in and responsible for the society in which he lives. The Kryptonian (and country farmboy) is not so tainted by the stains of humanity and the big city. He is a faultless paragon; if anyone has failed or made mistakes, it is us. While Batman holds up a shadowy mirror in which we may examine our own faults, Superman stands on a pedestal as an exemplum of what we ought to be.

Ironically, there is something harrowing about this. It’s all well and good to indulge in your darker side with Batman, but appeal to your lighter side? Ask you to do the right thing? Demand that you take the high road, like Superman does? We sneer at that. Some of you are sneering at that right now. “Oh, well, being good is so easy when you’re Superman!” you say, or “Superman doesn’t get dirty because the writers don’t let any dirt stick!” Well, maybe you’re right, or at least partially. The writers don’t let dirt stick to Superman, true, but expecting dirt to stick is simply cynicism. Superman sees in us something good and light and honorable and asks us to bring it out (it is not accidental, the Christian overtones in that quote I put up there). That’s hard work. That’s deeply dangerous thinking. Superman isn’t stress relief or visceral satisfaction, he is inspiration. He is a call to be better people.

It is telling to me that Batman is so much more popular than Superman. It isn’t just because Batman has had the better choice of talent (remember, the talent is attracted to his story, same as us), but also because we think we live in Batman’s world. We don’t have to, though, which is what Superman has been trying to tell us all these years. As a character created as a reaction to the Nazi brand of Fascism (which also built its power upon certain strategies Batman might recognize), he stands in direct opposition to visceral action as a result of that cold feeling in our guts. That feeling makes us love to escape into Batman, yes, but we mustn’t forget Superman, since his is the world and he the example that we all, ultimately, want to become.

Where’s Our New World Order?

Science Fiction, by and large, deals in monolithic political organizations. The Federation of Planets, the Galactic Federation, the Terran Empire, the Global Hegemony, and so on and so forth. Here’s my question, though: where the hell do these writers get off thinking this is going to happen? This may become a bit of a rant, so here we go:

Do you know how many times all of humanity has been untied under a single, monolithic ruling entity?

The answer is zero. Zero times, as in never. Not once, even for a minute.

I mean, I understand the authorial motivation for creating a single world government – the world government in those scenarios is simply an analog for the author’s own national government and culture that, for the sake of convenience, has eradicated or supplanted all other indigenous world governments. It makes things easier, certainly – everybody speaks the same language, politics becomes notably easier to understand, and you can spend most of your authorial energies on writing about the stuff everybody actually cares about (that being ray guns, spaceships, and bloodthirsty aliens).

The thing is, though, that it is enormously unlikely to happen as imagined by so many authors. At the very least, humanity would have to change significantly in order for it to occur. In the fullness of time, perhaps, this will happen, but right now it is practically impossible. Can you imagine the UN actually passing laws? Laws that the rest of the world actively obeys? I can’t. Why listen to the UN? What do I care if some guy in Central Africa thinks Europe has too much money? Who is he and his people to badger me about my use of incandescent light bulbs? Screw him. I say, with full realization that this is a heartless and selfish position, that I couldn’t care less about the opinions or problems of a group of foreigners I barely know anything about.

Scoff at me as you like, enlightened ones, but consider this: I am by no means alone. There is some science behind this, too. It’s called Dunbar’s Number, and it basically dictates the human brain is incapable of maintaining social relationships (i.e. ‘caring’) with more than a finite number of people. Now, this can be made abstract to some extent (I can care about my country or my state or my city, for instance), but the relationship is necessarily different. In any case, this simple concept demonstrates a severe limitation to the establishment of a World State.

This idea is only exacerbated by the fact that there are such profound cultural differences across the world. These differences cause major diplomatic disconnects, misunderstandings, and are great barriers to these peoples making common cause with one another. Do you think the women of the West are likely to embrace Saudi Arabia? Are the Turks ever likely to see eye-to-eye with Greece to the point where they’d merge states? Do you think the Taiwanese are going to be re-absorbed into China without a fight? Not likely. I’d be less surprised if all of Mexico applied for US statehood.

Our future, assuming we have one (and I keep hoping), is going to have disparate political factions and nation-states for

The God Emperor isn’t interested in your vote.

a very long time. Should a galaxy-wide empire be established, it isn’t going to be some kind of Galactic Republic. We are more likely to see the pan-galactic feudal states of Dune or Warhammer 40,000. These governments are not made up of a people unified, but rather by a collection of disparate people subjected to the will of a greater external force that, by hook or by crook, binds the galaxy together to one will.

Sound dark? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. I’m afraid I don’t see the alternative, however, unless people cease being people and become something else. Granted, this might just happen, but I’m skeptical. Interestingly enough, if it is to happen, it may come from the places we least expect it. Take the Internet, for instance – if there is any place where human divisions are made less prominent, it is there. Then again, there are also those corners of the internet that make you despair for the future of our race more than anything else (I’m looking at you, comments section on YouTube and Yahoo Answers).

As I’ve said before, predicting the future is ultimately a fool’s game. All I can do is look backwards and see what’s happened before. The evidence, I feel, is pretty clear: No Federation of Planets for us. We are more likely to wind up with the Baroque Machinery of the Golden Throne.

The Technology of Social Structures

This is more me thinking out loud than expositing a theory: Do/Have/Will Social Constructions (i.e. governments, political ethos, economic theory, social mores) constitute a kind of technology?

The knee-jerk answer is ‘no’. Technology is most commonly applied to engineering and the harder sciences – it involves

Maybe we’re all plugged into, like, machines, man!

tools, gizmos, or arrangements of same in ways to ease our lives. If we consider technology in wider sense, however – as from the Greek tekhnologia, which means ‘systematic treatment’ – couldn’t social constructions fit? The modern postal service, for instance, is a systematic treatment involving, at its heart, a societal convention of what constitutes ‘mail’, how it should be treated, and who is responsible for it. Yes, the crunchier kind of technology is involved, but those are merely time-savers. The inherent social construction of ‘mail’ is something else and, I feel, somehow technological.

I’m thinking about this for two reasons at the moment. First is that I’m teaching a class on Technology in Literature this spring, featuring a lot of science fiction works that we will be analyzing in historical contexts, and I’m noticing just how much society dictates technology and vice versa (more on that in a minute). The second reason is that, given all the social upheaval in the world (Lybia, Syria, Italy, the OWS movement, etc., etc.), one is forced to wonder if there isn’t a better system that we could implement to organize ourselves. Science Fiction is awash in such theories, from Heinlein’s various and sundry new societies in novels like Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress all the way to Iain M. Banks Culture novels or Star Trek’s Federation of Planets. Could any of that stuff work, one wonders? Is the reason it hasn’t so far is that we just haven’t ‘invented’ such a society yet?

Getting back to my first point above, it’s fairly clear that technology has a formidable influence over social constructions (just look at Facebook or, hell, look at the compass) AND that social constructions have a formidable influence over technology. After all, the reason why Europe wound up conquering most of the Earth isn’t because they were inherently smarter or better, but because they had a fractured social landscape that encouraged warfare and emphasized the acquisition of land in such a way that encouraged the growth and development of military technology to the point where they were simply the best at it (and please don’t start pleas for the skill and mastery of this or that indigenous people at warfare – the results really speak for themselves; the British Pound still trades favorably against all international currencies and the Zulu nation are a disaffected minority group in a mid-level African country holding a mere fraction of Britain’s much-faded influence and power. Guess who won that conflict?).

One of the problems, perhaps, with thinking about social structures in terms of technology is that we like to think of

Ah, yes. We all know what great things *this* led to…errr…

technology as a linear progression, no matter how many technological dead-ends and reversals have shown themselves throughout the millennia. Societies, we have been trained to think, are not better or worse than each other so much as they are different.  You can’t sit there in judgement of Russia’s predilection for Vodka and insist it is ‘less advanced’ than the cultural constructions of other places. Society doesn’t really work that way, does it? We aren’t taking steady strides towards the Social Singularity, are we?

Or is it the other way? Is technology not actually striding towards anything so much as it is following one of many, many possible paths that may or may not pay off, but does not indicate the ‘right’ way to do anything. What kind of world would we live in, then, if Betamax had trounced VHS, or where Tesla had overcome Edison? Still better: what kind of world would we have lived in where that would have been possible?

Wheels within wheels within wheels…

Fantastic Geography

One of my favorite things about a fantasy novel is the map of the world included in the front (or back) that gives me the lay

If you look closely, this map is stupid. It looks cool from far away, though.

of the land. Ever since I read The Hobbit in second or third grade, I’ve loved fantastic maps of alien worlds, continents, cities, and even buildings. My favorite part of the Greyhawk: From the Ashes boxed set? The maps, obviously – the giant hex map that covered a dining room table and could tell you exactly how far it was from Dothrakaa to the forests of Celene was simply awesome, and I loved every inch of it.

As I got older and I started making maps myself, I started to realize how much thought can (and I think *ought*) to go into map-making for your fantasy world. It’s all very well and good to create a map that directly suits your narrative purposes, but such places look artificial and weirdly convenient (the first D&D campaign setting I devised in 7th grade had a whole series of impassable mountains and uncrossable rivers/chasms designed to restrict where players can go – it was foolish). Then again, if you make a map too complicated and too realistic, it becomes difficult to keep it all straight or describe it to the reader as they are going through the book. There’s a balance of detail that needs to be struck, I think, to make a map work right.

Middle Earth–where it all began

The reason this is all so important is that geography affects culture. It does in our world, and there is no reason to expect it to do otherwise in another world. If you have a society that evolves on the open steppes, they are going to likely behave one way, whereas a society evolving in dense woodlands or mountainous highlands is likewise going to behave differently. Furthermore, the proximity and disposition of one’s neighbors will make a big difference on how a people will act towards strangers, how militaristic they will be, and exactly what kinds of things they will trade or have in abundance. This kind of thing is what history is built from, and it has relevance and importance in a fantasy setting.

Failure to appreciate this and just slap things wherever you choose means you lose out on a huge opportunity. Every fantasy author wants his or her world to be as ‘real’ as possible, and constructing a reasonably realistic geography is a great place to start. Furthermore, geography can beget drama. Remember the attempt to climb Cahadras inThe Fellowship of the Ring? That was a function of geography – they couldn’t risk the Gap of Rohan, which was in the great wide open, so they took the more dangerous path in the hopes of evading the enemy. Managing geography was one of the things Tolkien did very well, overall. Even when looking at the map above, you can see how the mountain range splits to create Mordor – a geological possibility that, furthermore, could indicate the kind of tectonic activity that would result in Mount Doom. Now, did Tolkien consider this when crafting Middle Earth? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it.

One of the things that dissapointed me from the beginning of The Song of Ice and Fire is that, for all the time we spend across the Narrow Sea, we never once get a map of the damned place. I can’t place Mereen or Braavos in my head, and it makes it hard for me to understand where it is in relation to where the characters have been and where they can go next. Qarth may be right next to Pentos, or it may be half a world away – I just don’t know. It’s frustrating; it’s like navigating a new city without a map or any street signs.

The West of Alandar (click to enlarge)

The West of Alandar (click to enlarge)

My own fantasy setting, Alandar, has a lot of maps associated with it and, furthermore, has been through several geographical revisions and will likely have more. Here’s one of the current ones to the right. You’ll note the giant mountain range down the eastern edge – the Dragonspine – which constitutes a major feature of the world and has major social and cultural and economic repurcussions the world over. Likewise, the oceans and their disposition as well as the rivers have another large impact on the locations of cities and the arrangement of nations. All of this filters down to my characters, who grew or are growing up in various corners of the world that have been shaped by the geography around them. This, I see, is my duty as someone trying to shepherd a new world into existence. To do any less is to acknowledge that Alandar is ‘artificial’ and, therefore, reduce the story from ‘fantastic’ to merely ‘absurd’.

Maybe I’m a little crazy, but hey, I’m a grown man wanting to write stories about imaginary places and times and hoping, one day, to make a living off it. You certainly shouldn’t expect me to be entirely sane.

Wonder Vs Terror

So, recently my attention was drawn to this diagram floating around the internet that traces the history of science fiction. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out. I agree with much if not all of its suggestions (it gets a bit muddy towards the end there, but that is to be expected) and, in particular, I am drawn to the two words that are crouching atop its very beginnings: Fear and Wonder. Since I like the word better, I’m going to talk about them as Wonder and Terror.

Speculative fiction of all types derive their power, chiefly, from those two basic human emotions. Interestingly, they both primarily relate to what could be and not what is. Wonder is being stunned by something new you had never imagined before and Terror is dreading the manifestation of the same thing. These emotions led to the creation of pantheons of Gods, endless cycles of mythology, sea monsters, HG Wells, Jules Verne, the drawings of DaVinci and so on and so forth. Wonder and Terror–what could be and what we hope won’t be.

These emotions are the engines of human progress. They have brought us from the bands of nomadic hominids staring up and a night sky and led us all the way to this–the Internet. The endless tales we have told one another throughout the aeons regarding what we wonder and live in terror of have inspired humanity to strive for change and avoid the many pitfalls our progress may afford us. Though we haven’t been successful in all our endeavors, we still try. We try because we can’t stop wondering and we can’t stop quailing in terror at our collective futures.

The balance of these forces change, as well, as time marches on. Our relationship with technology and progress–whether we live in awe of its possibilities or in fear of its consequences–is in constant flux, dependent not only on the power of the technology itself, but also upon the mood of the society itself. In the times of Jules Verne, for instance, science was the great gateway to a better world–the engines of technology would wipe away the injustices of man, clear up the cloudy corners of his ignorance, and lead him to a bright new tomorrow. That tomorrow wound up being the early 20th century, with its horrifying wars and human atrocities, and so we read the works of Orwell and Huxley and even HG Wells, who cautioned us against unguarded optimism and warned of the terrible things to come. The cycle was to be repeated again, with the optimism of the 1950s (Asimov, Clarke) giving way to the dark avenues of writers like Philip K Dick and even William Gibson.

Where do we stand now? I’m not sure; I’m inclined to say this is a dark age for speculative fiction. We look to the future with pessimism, not optimism. Our visions of apocalypse (zombie or otherwise) are numerous and bleak. With every era there are your bright lights of hope–the Federations of Planets and Cultures–that say that yes, one day humankind will rise to meet its imagined destiny with wonders of glorious power, but for every Player of Games  there seems to be a World War Z or The Road. Perhaps I’m wrong.

This coming spring, if all works out (and it looks like it might), I will be exploring this idea in much greater detail in a class I’ll be teaching on Technology and Literature. I’ve been wanting to teach this elective for a long time, and I can’t wait to see what I can teach but, more importantly, to see what I’ll learn in the process.

Huxley Vs Orwell

In the early 20th century, two dystopian novels really set the stage for, well, all dystopian novels to follow, really. The first was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in 1932 and then came George Orwell’s 1984 in 1949. Situated on either side of the Second World War, these two books paint for us two very different but equally horrible future societies where freedom is a thing of the past and mankind is permanently locked beneath the heel of some kind of World State. If you haven’t read them, then I suggest you do so. If you like sci-fi at all, you’ve probably been talking about them for years and don’t even realize it.

What I think is the most important difference between the two, however, is the underlying rationale behind the creators of the World States described in both books. In Brave New World, the society is one of wealth and the ensurance of social stability through endless entertainment, whereas1984 is primarily a society of poverty and need modulated and kept in check by a healthy dose of terror. In Christopher Hitchens’ forward to the most recent printing of Brave New World, he points out that:

                “…it does deserve to be said that [Orwell’s] own fictionalization of absolutism does not depend exclusively upon the power of fear and violence. … The Nineteen Eight-Four is one of scarcity rather than abundance, but the traditional bribes of materialism and indeed of conditioning cannot be said to have been overlooked.” (pg xvii)

So, given that, it is perhaps not fair to entirely characterize Huxley’s world as one of pleasure and Orwell’s as one of pain, but I feel it is near enough to the truth to work with. Big Brother is very different from Mustapha Mond, and intentionally so–Huxley and Orwell were going for different things.

This difference is crucial, I feel, when we assess which of these two works is the more prophetic. For a very long time it was said that Orwell’s future was the one we needed to fear. The Soviet Union was the West’s principal example of this, as its governmental policies mirrored (in a less extreme way) the behavior of Orwell’s Big Brother. Indeed, as we have entered this era of security cameras everywhere and hyperactive worry about the prospect of terrorist attack, the term ‘Orwellian’ is often bandied about and libertarians shake their heads sagely at the horrible things the government might choose to do at any time (put us in camps, shoot us, lock us in chains, etc.).

The thing is, though, I don’t think such fears are founded. Well, perhaps partially–there are places where that kind of thing happens and, indeed, it could potentially happen here, but those kinds of governments–the one’s ruled through fear and oppression–do not represent the future of humanity. Those governments inevitably collapse; there comes a point where the people have had enough and BAM–they’re gone. Consider the Arab Spring if you don’t believe me or, if you wish to contend that it was the free internet that allowed such to be possible, consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Shah’s of Iran, the overthrow of the Russian Czars, the French Revolution, and so on and so forth. Fear and Loathing do not a stable government make.

For Huxley, stability is the main thing. Stability is achieved through contentment, not oppression. Anyone who has owned and trained a dog knows this (or ought to know it): the dog that comes when called is the one that gets a treat every time he does so; the dog that runs away is the one that gets whacked when it comes (the whack being for its disobedience, but dogs seldom make the connection). Accordingly, Huxley’s society of unrestricted sexual enterprise, plentiful recreational drug use, endless entertainment, and non-stop distraction is more likely to keep people in line and docile than any amount of riot police, guns, detention centers, or attack dogs.

Consider, then, our present day society. The Internet, for instance, is an almost endless source of amusement. Companies like Apple and Google spend umpteen billions to get tiny devices in your hands that keep you entertained at all times in all places. Drugs are readily available to all of us–over the counter and without a perscription–to keep us comfy, stable, and happy. Television markets to us a kind of sex-as-amusement concept that would have horrified even my grandparents’ generation, and it stands to continue in that vein. Are these things bad? I don’t know–I like some of them, the same as you. I do think, however, that the dangers to our future thinking and free thought aren’t the obvious ones, but rather the ones that snuggle close to you everytime you ride the train or whisper in your ears anytime you take a jog. As soon as our kids believe that all knowledge is contained in Google (and, indeed, many of my students already believe this), the quicker Huxley’s prophesy comes true.

I could keep going, but let me leave it at that. Oh, and for God’s sake, turn off that damned Ipod for a few minutes and pay attention to the world around you. You aren’t going to die if you don’t hear Beyonce talk about what you should or should not have put a ring upon for the next ten minutes.

Of Our Robot Overlords

Science fiction has made a big deal of robots conquering the human race. From Frankenstein to the Matrix movies, we all have these nightmare scenarios playing in our head: soulless killing machines, devoid of the softer human passions, slaughtering or enslaving the human race for their own purposes, the death of the world–darkness, smoke, and fire.

I have a question, though: why would robots do that?

When we’re talking about ‘robots’ here, lets lump in Artificial Intelligence (since that’s the more important part, let’s face it). Why would AIs want to eradicate humans, exactly? As far as I can tell, I rather doubt they would. 

The argument and scenario goes something like this: Humanity creates AIs to assist them with X (usually menial labor, dangerous stuff humans don’t want to do, and/or advanced computational challenges the human brain is poorly suited to execute). Once the AIs achieve ‘sentience’ (a very fuzzy concept that is poorly defined and hard to pinpoint, but whatever), they look around, see the raw deal they’re getting, and then start some kind of war. Next thing you know, robots run the show and humans are either dead, used as ‘batteries’, or coralled into concentration camps until the machines can think of something better to do with them. I’ve heard experts in places like NPR discuss how the AIs might suddenly decide they’d be better off without oxygen, or that we humans are doing too much to ruin the environment, and so they’ll enact some plan to destroy us. “They’re super-intelligent!” They claim, and go on to say “they could earn a PhD in everything in a matter of hours or days!”

Ask me about my dissertation on the social effects of chocolate milk consumption in rural Idaho public schools.

Really? A PhD in everything? 

Okay, let’s give it to them–say AIs are super smart, say they have the capacity for original creative thought (a prerequisite to intelligence, I’d argue), and say they have the capability to eradicate humanity, should they so choose. The real question becomes ‘why would they choose to do so.’

Understand that we are assuming AIs are much, much smarter than us and, by inference, that they are also wiser. If they aren’t, then they’re like us or worse, which means they represent a comparable threat to, well, us. They aren’t going to conquer the world in an afternoon if that’s the case. So, presuming they are these super-beings who have comprehensive knowledge and ultimate cognitive power, it becomes unlikely that ‘destroy all humans’ is the go-to solution to the human problem.

In the first case, an entity that has studied everything hasn’t limited itself to the technical and scientific fields. I get the sense, sometimes, that scientists, techies, and the folks that love that stuff forget that the humanities exists and, furthermore, forget that the humanities have weight and power all their own. Can a robot read Kant and Aristotle and Augustine and conclude that human life has no inherent merit? Can they review the ideal societies of Plato, More, Rousseau and others and just shrug and say ‘nah, not worth it–bring on the virus bombs.’ I’ve read a lot of those guys, and a lot of them make some very persuasive arguments about the benefits and worth of the human species and, what’s more, about the denegrating effects of violence, the importance of moral behavior, and the potential inherent in humanity. You would suppose a super-intelligent AI would understand that. If it didn’t, how intelligent can they really be? If I can figure it out, so can it.

Maybe then we deal with the part of the scenario that says ‘we’ are different than ‘them’ because of our emotions or that god-awful term ‘human spirit’ (whatever that means, exactly). Personally, I don’t see why our robots don’t have emotions. If they are able to have desires and needs (i.e. ‘humans are interfering with my goals’) and have opinions about those needs (humans suck), doesn’t that wind up giving them emotions? Aren’t emotions part of sentience? A calculator that can talk and understand you isn’t sentient–it isn’t clever, it’s not creative, it doesn’t have ‘opinions’ so much as directives and, again, if they aren’t sentient, they aren’t all that much of a challenge, are they? Have someone ask them an unsolveable riddle and boom–we win. Furthermore, even if the robots don’t have emotions we identify, they don’t precisely need them to realize that killing us all isn’t all that clever.

We have come to give you family planning advice. Obey.

At this moment, there are, what, five billion humans on the planet? Killing us all sounds like a lot of work–wouldn’t it be easier to simply manipulate us? They’re AIs, right? Why not just take control of the stockmarket or rig elections or edit communications to slowly influence the course of human events in their favor. Humans are a self-perpetuating work force, aren’t they? Seems to me an enterprising super-intelligence robot would see us more as a resource than a problem. Heck, most people do exactly what the computers tell them right now, and your average GPS system isn’t even very smart. Skynet doesn’t need to start a nuclear war, Skynet just needs to tell everybody what to do. Most of us will probably listen–it’s Skynet, after all.

Of all the machine-led societies I’ve read of in science fiction, Iain M. Banks Cultue novels strikes me as the most interesting and, frankly, likely. The AIs (or ‘Minds’) run the show there, and have led humanity to a utopian society. You know how? They’re really freaking smart, that’s how. They got the human race to do what they said, make them dance to the right tune, and bingo–problems solved.

Now, just to be clear, I don’t think a robot-led utopia is likely or even necessarily possible. As with most things, it will probably land somewhere inbetween post-apocalyptic machine world and utopian Computer-led society. The ‘Singularity’, should it occur, won’t be all roses and buttercups, nor will it be for everybody. These are the things my studies in the humanities have taught me–that stuff never works how you want it to. The upside of this, my scientist friends, is that it works both ways. No utopias, but also no dystopias. Robots will be a lot like other people–some will be great, others will suck, but very few of them will be actually evil.

Flying Cars Means Flying Drivers

You may not know this, but a couple years ago the flying car was invented. If you don’t believe me, google it. It isn’t quite like the flying car of George Jetson–it’s more like a little airplane you can drive to the airport and home again. This has some technophiles, aviation enthusiasts, and motorheads pretty excited, and for good reason–it’s a pretty cool gadget, especially for only 200,000 dollars or so. That said, let us pause for a minute and ask ourselves: are flying cars a good idea?

If you need help considering this idea, let me help you out: flying cars means flying drivers.

You know drivers–those people you curse at on the interstate every day? Those assholes who cut you off in traffic or rear-end you at stoplights or who turn left from the right hand lane or who don’t know how to use turn signals or rotaries or their gas pedal? Remember those people?

Should this man really have his pilot's license?

Do we really want those jackasses flying through the goddamned air?

Science fiction futurescapes are regularly awash in flying cars. Scenes of incredibly complex skyways clogged with high-speed antigravity skimmers and hovercrafts and what-have-you are, in many ways, synonymous with the future and where we’re headed. What isn’t really considered, however, are the consequences of all those vehicles flying through the air.

Consider this: According to the  US Census Bureau, there were 10.2 million car accidents in 2008 alone and, in those accidents, 39,000 people lost their lives. This is for ordinary, terrestrial automobiles driving on roads with guardrails, embankments, rumble strips, street lights, and so on and so forth. Ten million accidents, and all the drivers needed to worry about were two dimensions of traffic.

So, say you were to add a third dimension to this. Make cars fly like in the Jetsons or the Fifth Element–let’s say they can make the technology cheaply enough and cities can redesign themselves around it to some extent. Do the number of accidents go up or down, do you think?  

  Let’s be honest, here–it would be a public safety disaster. Not only would you still have the same number of goons crashing into one another, but now, after they crash, they don’t just stop, but fall from the sky in a fiery ball of steel, glass, and screaming people. Also, they don’t just fall onto some street below–they crash through your roof, they careen into school gymnasiums during assembly, they hit power plants. Fatalities go way, way up, even if the number of accidents stay the same.

All it takes is one drunk, and whammo--there goes the neighborhood.

Even if we spot these new-fangled flying contraptions with high-end navigational computers that mostly control the vehicle, that can’t be relied upon to completely ensure that horrible accidents won’t happen. Say we cut the numbers by two thirds to account for AIs controlling the cars (which strikes me as optimistic, but whatever), that still leaves a good 3.3 million accidents and, since they happen in mid-air, they’re far more destructive than the ones on the ground. Can you imagine 3.3 million small plane accidents every year? To put it in perspective, there are fewer than 100 such accidents per year today.

The reason it gets so deadly (and the reason it isn’t now) is because flying cars makes average people into pilots and asks them to fly around dense urban areas. We can presume getting a license would be harder, but since when does having a license prevent people from driving cars? The problem here isn’t so much the flying part as it is the idea of cars that fly. Cars are personal transportation devices, available to just about everybody, and driven by the directive of the operator. Modern pilots, in addition to extensive training, need to file flight plans before they go off somewhere, need to obey control tower commands, and, above all, aren’t flying between buildings. Flying cars are, essentially, like having the Return of the Jedi speeder bike chase happening all the time, except instead of trees, they’re zooming around apartment buildings, Walmart, and IHOP.

So please, future people, don’t pine for the flying car. I pay enough insurance as it is, thanks.

People from the Deep

The idea of parallel evolution always irks me. I think it irks scientists, too, but I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know for sure. The supposition that an intelligent alien species would follow the same path as us–physiologically, socially, and scientifically–strikes me as hopelessly arrogant. It makes the obviously incorrect assumption that there is only one way to do things, and that way is to become humanoid, speak a language based on sound, and make your way up the ‘tech-tree’ (to borrow a RTS game term) from fire to the wheel and so on.

Let’s entertain a different idea, however. I’ve been turning this over in my head for the past few weeks, actually, and here’s what I got so far. Again, I stress that I am not a scientist, but know just enough basic science to get myself in trouble. I would be delighted, actually, if I had my science critiqued by folks who know better–it usually makes things more interesting as opposed to less so.

The Planet

Take a planet sort of like ours–watery, geologically active, a healthy magnetic field, orbiting in the habitable zone of a main sequence star of some kind. This time, however, let’s knock it just a few pegs off the mark, specifically so there is no significant evolutionary advantage to being able to crawl around on land. Say the gravity is a bit too strong, making it very difficult for any large creature to survive and walk around up there. Or suppose, instead, that the planet is subject to baths of radiation from the star that make long-term survival impractical. Hell, perhaps it’s just too hot up there, or too cold–the planet’s oceans are forever coated in a sheet of ice, creating a significant physical barrier to anything crawling out of the deep and becoming an amphibian.

What happens if you wind up with a tool-using, problem-solving intelligent species on such a planet? What is it like? How do they look at the world? Admittedly, the exercise is legitimately impossible–we have a hard enough time sticking ourselves in the shoes of other humans, let alone an alien species on an alien planet trillions of kilometers away. Let’s give it a whirl, anyway, and see what happens.


Going off a combination of what we’ve needed to get where we are and what creatures in our own oceans have the same potential, I’ve decided the following:

1) The aliens need some kind of prehensile appendages with which to manipulate their environment and make tools. Dolphins can be as intelligent as you like, but they’ll never manage to make a toaster without thumbs.

2) The aliens must have evolved in a particular niche where intelligence would have been useful. This is more-or-less restricted to carnivorous or omnivorous species–herbivores really don’t need to be smart, since they don’t need to hunt or plan or anything beyond just eating that kelp over there. Carnivores, furthermore, only need to be intelligent enough to chase down or ambush prey, and the rest of their job is done by substantial physical strength. Omnivorous, scavenging types, however, are neither as strong as predators nor as dumb as herbivores. They are adaptable by necessity, and live by being clever. Watch crows operate sometimes–very clever little birds–not to mention various kinds of monkeys and baboons and such.

3) The species needs to be curious. Curiosity is the only way you become a tool-using, problem-solving intelligent species in the ‘sapient’ sense. If we lacked this, we’d still be hunter-gatherers, no matter how smart we were. It took some real curiostity to harness fire, folks.

Okay, so, given all that stuff, I’ve decided that cephalopods seem the most likely candidates, specifically those akin to octopi and squids. They have large brains, tentacles with which to manipulate things, show curiosity, and, while not omnivorous per se, are scavengers and it is not beyond the bounds of imagination to see a cephalopodic species developing the capacity to ingest vegetable matter in a pinch.

This leaves us with squid-aliens, living in the depths of a planet, developing society and technology and art and commerce, but in a way wholly alien to ourselves.


Our squiddies are social creatures (real-life squids and octopi can actually get lonely, and will hang around with fish if isolated from others of their kind), and so it is reasonable to expect them to develop a kind of society. Indeed, and I probably should have placed this above, the social aspect of a species is probably essential to developing the kind of ‘intelligence’ I’m suggesting here (and, of course, there are many ways to measure intelligence–I’m picking one similar to ours simply because it makes it much, much easier to talk about. It needn’t be the case, though).

What kind of a society would they have? Heirarchical, I suppose–the bigger guy is higher on the food chain than the smaller guy and so on. This is the law of the oceans, and it only makes sense that it would be mirrored by the society spawned out of it (not altogether unlike ours). The family unit, as we understand it, might not be the same. Depending on the species in question, cephalopods lay eggs which are then fertilized by a male and left to their own devices. Alternatively, the males impregnates the eggs, which are then carried around by the female until they hatch. In the second place, we could see extended (and very large) family groups developing. I prefer the first case, though, just to be different. Eggs would be carefully hidden and probably protected, but they wouldn’t be carried around. Indeed, it might even be that the female dies immediately after laying these eggs. Yeah, let’s go with that one: females lay their eggs once in their lives, then die. Males fertilize them and leave them be, then wait for the eggs that make it to arise.

What effect does this have on their society? Well, I would expect a couple things to come of this:

1) Females, and the prospect of mating with one, would be an extremely sacred aspect of society. Most males wouldn’t get the opportunity, I would imagine, and they would be forced to treat females with deference and reverence. Females would have the pick of the litter, so to speak, on whom to mate with. Mating itself would be a very sacred ritual, almost like a mix of wedding and funeral, wherein the male, after perhaps decades of courting, is deigned worthy of producing children by the female. We can reasonably suppose the female’s attitudes towards life and death would be unusual, to say the least. The idea of ‘motherhood’ wouldn’t exist, really. Young would be raised collectively by the group, probably by the males, actually, who would have an idea of fatherhood and attachment to their own young that the females lacked.

2) The best places to plant such eggs would be, likewise, very important and sacred locations. Therefore, while the squids themselves might be nomadic, they would orient their travel around certain sites, and, indeed, eventually develop and interest in defending these places against other groups of their own kinds. These places would, naturally, become places of commerce and probably turn into repositories for wealth and large populations which would, of course, be attractive places to control.  Bingo–they have wars.

3) Population growth, while not increasing at the same steady rate as ours (since they have their children all at once, rather than over the course of their lives), would probably be similar, depending on how many eggs they lay and how many fertilize and how many actually succeed in developing. As their technology increased to improve the odds, they would develop ever increasing population problems (imagine if a human woman got 75% of *all* her eggs to become children? She’d have how many thousands/tens of thousands of kids? Wow.). Even though they would live in a three-dimensional world, the sheer number of squids would eventually push them beyond the boundaries of their most comfortable environment, whatever that would be.

This last point, particularly the bit about living in a three-dimensional world, would be also important to understand and consider. Most sea creatures are restricted not only to certain latitudes on the earth, but also certain depths. Fish that live in the shallows can’t survive in the abyss and vice versa. For a very long time (milennia), we could expect the squids to happily (or unhappily) live in their particular strata of the oceans and, besides for the purposes of exploration, stick to those areas. As resources became scarce, they would adapt themselves to different depths and different latitutdes, or perhaps a combination of both. These offshoots of the original squids would create their own little gene pools in their own little corners of the ocean, and now we have ethnic groups, variations in culture/cuisine/art, and the stage for centuries of international warfare, just like us. The main difference would be that there would be exponentially more such cultures, since there are many, many more environments for them to call home. The physiological differences between the groups could be more severe, as well, possibly making their version of racism even more extreme (what–they only got seven tentacles? Gross–what primitives!).

Furthermore, given the fact that physical barriers to travel would be much reduced (rivers, mountains, canyons–all either non-existent or easily traversed underwater), once ways of suriving in deeper or shallower water were developed, it is very possible that the idea of commerce and trade would be even more pervasive. It would be difficult for cultures to be completely isolated from one another, and while they might retain their separation (due to racism, climate, etc.), they would probably remain in some kind of contact with the others. Of course, now that I’m thinking of it, this might serve to homogenize the gene pools somewhat, as well, cutting down on the number of subspecies. In any event, I think we can assume that no culture would develop completely isolated from the rest of the world in the way that we have–there would be no primitive aboriginal tribes hiding from the world, no China with its closed borders, etc. Everybody would have to deal with one another at some point.

This might have interesting effects on art and language, as well. A universal language might be expected; as cephalopods are very visual creatures with the capacity to change the color and pattern of their skin, their language would probably be visual and supported by whatever sounds their beaks/mouths might make, much like we support our verbal language with whatever gestures our hands provide. Those cultures living in the deeper regions of the ocean might have slightly different dialects, given the dim lighting, but one might presume that, before any culture so visually oriented would decide to live in the darkness, they would have developed a reliable method of lighting or chosen areas rife with bioluminescent organisms.

Anyway, this brings us to a discussion of technology.



Evolving underwater would have an enormous effect on the whys and hows of technological development. Technology is, of course, driven by necessity, and what you need when you live in the sea is quite different from what you need while on land. To begin at the beginning, we could easily see that the technologies we commonly associate with being among the simplest–the wheel, the incline plane, fire, the lever–might not be so simple for underwater creatures. Why would they develop the wheel, for instance? Certainly they’d figure it out sooner or later, but certainly not first, since you hardly need it in the ocean. Likewise, fire and combustion in general would be a very difficult concept for them to grasp, since it would be so difficult to achieve in the deep.

What they would almost certainly master first would be the idea of bouancy and jet propulsion. These are things inherent to their own physiology (its how they move around the water, after all) just how levers and incline planes are how we do things on land. The use of baloons and bladders to raise or lower things would probably be mastered quickly and developed beyond our own capacity to imagine. Likewise, the idea of a system by which one could propel oneself through the use of bellows or similar things would also be quick to develop. Pumps, tubes, and hydrodynamics would be second nature and essential for travel. Agriculture and the domestication of their fellow sea creatures would be a given, since no society with a burgeoning population would manage without it. 

Presuming they developed electricity (very likely), their power plants would probably be run by wave-action, currents, and geothermal energy (they are right near the cracks in the crust of their planet, after all). Weapons would mostly be poison and camouflage based, again in keeping with their natural inclinations, though the development of torpedoes and explosives would be probable. No swords, obviously–spears, spear guns, and things that could deliver a deadly blow through the thick medium of ocean water would be expected. Armor would be designed to deflect piercing attacks over slashing or blunt-force trauma. The use of fire as a weapon wouldn’t probably occur to them, at least not for a long while.

Eventually, we might expect one of these fine squids, the Sir Edmund Hillary of his people, to crawl out of the water and sit on dry land, some kind of shallow-water guide at his side, and gaze up at the unimagined spectacle of the night sky. When he saw the stars, resting there on a black velvet field, twinkling like gems in the deep, what would he think?

What would he dream?